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Chiaroscuro as Encounter
By Siobhan Leddy
Chiaroscuro is a confrontation. An encroachment, even. It tugs at your attention, audaciously possessing the eye. It leaves the viewer with no choice but to look. Translating from Italian as light-dark, chiaroscuro has often been associated with a kind of deception or, worse, criminality: an aesthetic of candlelit rooms thick with damp, of terrible things concealed in the shadows. It’s the femme fatale’s drag of a cigarette after she murders her lover; an upturned table at an illegal card game, where the stakes are intoxicatingly high; it is Judith calmly removing Holofernes’ head with a swipe of a sword.
Chiaroscuro differs to monochrome, which – as Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) shows us – need render neither depth nor, for most viewers, feeling. (Perhaps I’m projecting: I have never gained much from high abstraction.) Much modernist painting, reaching its zenith with the likes of Piet Mondrian, Sigmar Polke and other Great White Men, rejected chiaroscuro’s trickery outright: the truth of flatness should be revealed. The job of the painter was to make the canvas entirely legible – this was a matter of ethics.
Chiaroscuro, meanwhile, is awash with shades: where burgundies, blacks and indigos meet lemon yellows, whites, and rose pinks. These encounters create depth, intensity and drama. Throughout art history, chiaroscuro has been used as a trick, a sleight of hand to create an illusion of depth on a flat surface. In this sense, it is fundamentally dishonest.
I am often attracted to things that I find unsettling, even a little frightening. But what is unsettling about chiaroscuro, exactly? That some things refuse to be seen? This is the premise of every horror movie ever made: horror is what happens when we try to imagine what lurks in the shadows… (But wait, before we get too carried away, try to remember that this is an old and ugly song. Fear of the unknown fuels the violence of state borders, xenophobia, white supremacy, transphobia, the prison-industrial complex, genocide, fascism, misogyny, every school bully ever. If we are the ones that are condemned to the shadows, these are the kinds of horrors that are easier to imagine. In this sense, shadows can be more revealing than light.)
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A different proposition: could the shadows offer a place of liberation, rather than fear? Shadows are murky and unknowable and, at times, outside of the law. (Yes! Law and morality are not synonymous.) Chiaroscuro is a thrilling and strange and perhaps anxious meeting of opposites, in which obscurity and visibility play out together. This encounter between opposites may be uneasy, like a breath held for a beat too long, but this is what happens when we’re on the cusp of something new. That’s just dialectics, baby.
Besides, total visibility is overrated. The neoliberal project demands transparency: share your data, track your location, ensure your face can be digitally surveilled. We are translated into biometric data sets, made intelligible to bots. Facebook’s algorithm identifies faces with 97% accuracy. A startup with the cringe-inducing name Faception is marketed as a sort of 21st century phrenology. Its facial recognition technology gathers and, supposedly, analyses identities, “revealing their personality based only on their facial image.” Their website’s vague copy obscures the fact that this is a predictive program to assess criminality – using machine learning to classify whether you're a pedophile, terrorist, or serial gambler (?) – preventing crimes before they occur. Despite its junk-science and inevitable race, class, gender, and age biases, in 2016 an as-yet unnamed homeland security agency signed a contract to use the software.
Here’s something that’s no secret: the digital ruling class – the Peter Thiels and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world – are engaging in a planetary-scale grab of identities, flattening us into data in order to assert dominance over all life. This is indisputable. What is and will be done with this data, however, is a little more opaque. These companies already operate in the shadows, why shouldn’t the rest of us?
The chiaroscuro artist knows that total visibility, total knowledge, is not only tedious but tyrannical. Instead they engage with a world as fundamentally unknowable, where – in the shadows – one can conceal and be concealed. Take, for instance, artist Adam Harvey's use of 'dazzle' techniques. Resembling a high-end beauty editorial, these ‘looks’ apply asymmetrical shapes to the face as camouflage from algorithmic facial detection. While, at first glance, the rhomboids of black makeup and jagged canopies of hair appear closer to Malevich’s Black Square than Caravaggio’s Bacchus, Harvey’s dazzle is a facial trompe-l'œil. Foreheads are read as wider, cheekbones higher. As with chiaroscuro, these shapes create artificial depth, confusing the algorithms that attempt to read you. You once again become a stranger – yet this is no act of self-negation, relegating identity to the shadows. It’s a productive force, in which chiaroscuro becomes a site of resistance.
But as with all forms of opposition, we must keep moving. Technology has progressed, has better adapted to do its work, and so must we. Harvey’s dazzle was created in 2011, when facial recognition algorithms saw faces as two dimensional – as flat as a canvas. Back then, a smear of contrasting color was enough to evade capture, to trick even the cleverest bot. Today’s technology, however, sees us in three dimensions. Harvey’s chiaroscuro is no longer enough. Instead we must all become tricksters, making use of the limited tools left at our disposal: steal coins from the behind the ears of the rich, perform sensational escape acts, suspend the rules of reality. As magicians, all things are possible.
Siobhan Leddy is a Berlin-based writer and editor.
IGNANT is a Berlin-based magazine and production studio.